Speculative Mythology: Tolkien’s adaptation of winter and the devil in Old English poetry

— Joshua T. Parks

5 October 2021 | Tolkien Studies, XVIII, 163

Not only do J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth writings include fairy tales, mythological adventures, linguistic exercises, and theological reflections; they also provided their author with a place for scholarly play. Tolkien’s fictional work often serves as a philological sandbox, free from the demands and criticisms of a scholarly audience. For example, as several scholars have noted, the Gothic names of the Rohirrim’s distant ancestors (Vidugavia, Vidumavi, etc.) suggest that the Rohirrim’s real-world counterparts, the Anglo-Saxons, might have had Gothic ancestry.1 This conjecture is much safer hidden in fictional genealogies than it would be in a scholarly publication. In this essay, I explore another example of such scholarly play: Tolkien’s treatment of the relationship between the devil and winter in Old English poetry. The Old English Genesis, elegies like The Wanderer and the Seafarer, and hagiographies like Andreas all suggest an implicit connection between Satan’s desire to hold a throne in the north, Satan’s role as a spiritual opponent to the saints, and winter weather’s parallel roles as both northerly menace and spiritual threat. Tolkien borrows these themes in his invented mythology and adds an explicit, causal connection between them. His Satan figure, Melkor (later named Morgoth),2 is a dark lord upon a dark throne in the North” who created temperature extremes and who brings spiritual and physical danger as well as a Fell Winter upon his realm (S 205). The Old English poems considered below might compel an imaginative reader to wonder what a mythological connection between the north-dwelling devil and northerly weather might look like. Melkor is Tolkien’s answer to that question, an answer that he also incorporates into the theology and aesthetics of his mythology as a whole.…

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date recorded 📅2022-01-02
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